Sunday, May 15, 2011

Getting the data

Robert McNamara (pictured left) as I shall always remember him,
shooting zombies in Call of Duty: Black Ops.

I have been reading with great interest a series of posts by Foy over at Prometheus in Aspic. He has been examining the difficulties and compromises attendant on making a game out of the grand tragedy that is human conflict.

Pushing toy soldiers is a pretty poor simulation of battle, but it makes for a great passtime and one that has given me comfort, pleasure and good comradeship for many years. I have no doubt that the actuarial eye that Foy has brought to the problem is useful and helps tease out the situation. One of the lessons that Robert McNamara propounds in the documentary "Fog of War", a very fine piece of work, is "Get the data."

He is of course, absolutely right.

However, I am skeptical of the idea that getting the data is an achievable goal, particularly in a situation as chaotic and confusing as battle. I would argue that in some ways it is part of the human desire to know the unknowable, to catalogue and quantify in order that some of the terrifying unpredictability of life be taken away. This is an entirely understandable reaction and one without which the science that lights our homes, gives us clean water and heals us when we are sick, would be stillborn. We are better off for this impulse - but must be clear that it does not offer us a universal panacea and that constant revaluation is the price of progress.

I dealt some time ago with a person who had been the victim of a serious assault. When talking to them, I realised that they were quite shaken by the experience and were still trying to make sense of it. What struck me about the conversation was that the person kept asking me what they had done wrong - as if the incident had been a punishment for a transgression. I think, and all I can offer is my opinion, is that this person was looking for a structure, a rule that they could abide by in future that would prevent this terrible thing re-occuring.

Sadly, I wasn't able to put their mind at ease because they hadn't done anything wrong - it wasn't as if they had indulged in some manner of the risktaking behaviour; they had been going about their business as they had every right to do and were utterly blameless, legally or morally for what had occurred to them. Life had dealt them a bad hand that day and there was simply nothing they could do but learn to bear it well.

I sometimes wonder if wargamers obsession with minutia and numbers is part of a desire to make sense of a chaotic situation that occurred many years ago, to achieve a feeling of control there that they lack in other aspects of their lives. I certainly get a great deal of pleasure from completing a collection or securing a hard to find figure.

Anyway, this largely academic line of thought will have to be put to one side. I unwrapped two parcels of books this morning and a small white cat has just dashed past me festooned with string...

...and if that isn't the personification of randomness, I don't know what is.

1 comment:

  1. or perhaps the false seeming randomness. I'm sure one could calculate fairly accurately the odds that a kitten would end up wearing string off a parcel. The basic roll would be 3 or better on a d6 but of course there are modifiers for experience and attitude of pet custodian (somehow owner does not seem to apply to cats), type of garbage receptacles available, age of kitten and so forth. Admittedly getting the event to happen at the right time is trickier, might call for a series of rolls........